Is the ending of digital Right to Work checks in the UK a step back?

07 juli 2021

The Government plans to end the concession to the Right to Work checking process which was introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic and allows employers to conduct checks remotely instead of having to meet with employees or prospective employees face-toface. The resumption of in-person checks was
initially scheduled for 17 May 2021 and was then pushed back to 21 June to coincide with the date when Step 4 of the Government’s COVID response was initially supposed to take effect. 

The temporary digital Right to Work solutions will now end on the 31st of August. But why is the UK Government ending these rules? Has
the COVID period not proven digital solutions are more than adequate as an alternative or an addition to face-to-face checks? (or are they maybe even more reliable?) What are the consequences and what will happen on the 1st of September? In addition, how does this align with the digital strategy of the UK Government?
We discuss these questions with Keith Rosser, Founder of Reed Screening, one of the UK’s largest employee screening businesses. Keith is also an advisor to the UK government on employee screening, labour market policy and legislation. We also speak to Björn Rijckenberg, Digital Identity expert for DataChecker. 

What is a Right to Work check?

Before answering this question, by talking to experts in the field, we’ll explain shortly what a Right to Work check is and why it’s important for employers and recruitment companies. A Right to Work check makes sure that new employee’s or candidates are not disqualified from carrying out the work in question by reason of their immigration status. Companies and organisation’s have a statutory requirement and responsibility which results in a civil penalty in the event they are found to have employed someone who is prevented from carrying out the work in the UK. The ability to find illegal employment is one of the biggest reasons behind illegal migration and leaves people vulnerable to exploitation. This impacts compliant businesses and has a negative impact on the wages of lawful workers. It’s also linked to other labour market abuse cases, such as tax evasion, breach of the minimum wage and poor working conditions and standards. If an employer, employment agency or intermediary is found to be employing someone illegally and the correct check is not carried out, these organisation’s risk varying levels of fines and also the risk of being closed down in worst cases.

Right to Work during COVID

As said, the government created the possibility to perform digital Right to Work checks during the pandemic. Before COVID, a person had to be checked by someone in real life, by checking the physical documents. The government has decided that employers need to do physical checks after the 31st of August, as they did before COVID. But has the COVID period not proven the purpose and effectiveness of digital Right to Work solutions in the UK?

Keith Rosser: ‘The pandemic has been a terrible thing globally and in the UK. It has also forced us to work and operate differently. The ability to conduct remote Right to Work checks has directly led to hundreds of thousands of people getting work during the crisis who may well have not been able to otherwise. Viewing documents through technological channels has not, in my opinion, been any less safe than a person checking the physical document face to face as many people carrying out the physical checks cannot be responsible for identifying a decent fake document’.

What is the impact of this decision?

The impact of ending the measures might be bigger than we all think. Will this only effect the employers/ recruitment industry and temping agencies? Or all businesses in need of new employees?

Keith Rosser: ‘Any organisation working in a hybrid way will soon find it harder to recruit people due to the need to meet them face to face or for applicants to post confidential documents around the UK, and their talent pools will be greatly diminished as they will be limited to recruiting locally. This will be the case for the recruitment sector who have a key role to play in helping both the jobs and economic recovery. Many recruiters now work remotely, or in a hybrid way, meaning their ability to help people find work will be severely restricted by this move. Either applicants will need to post documents around the UK, contributing to greater theft, loss, and fraud, or recruitment agencies will only be able to serve people living locally to the office.'

Not all digital Right to Work check legislation are ending in August 2021. Non-UK citizens can still use the Online Checking Service performed by the Home office as a legal right to work check.

Keith Rosser: 'Non-UK Nationals will be able to find work remotely, more easily, and more quickly. They will have greater choice in work opportunities as they will not be limited by location and employers will find it faster and cheaper to employ them as it will be based around a digital solution.'

Looking beyond the issues of recruiting people, are there any other consequences for the UK. For example: how will the recovery of UK economy be affected by this decision?

Keith Rosser: 'Enabling businesses to prosper and ensuring people find work will be incredibly important as the economy reopens. The return to physical checks will restrict both. Many organisations want to work in a hybrid way moving forward, with digital first strategies, and increased flexibility for its workers. Needing to physical check new employees in person will stunt business growth and restrict opportunities. Physical checking will also hamper the labour market. People who have become used to flexible working will be tied to living near their employer. Many people with COVID anxiety or who continue to shield well after August will find their work horizons significantly restricted. There will be less job mobility, choice, and opportunity for workers resulting in higher unemployment than necessary slowing down economic growth.

The digital transformation of the UK government

The UK government has an elaborate strategy on transforming transactions and services to digital platforms. Minister Ben Gummer on this strategy: ‘It is the most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world, by a government that has already done more to transform itself than any other.’ How does this ambitious strategy relate to the ending of digital right to work checks?

Keith Rosser: 'In a post Brexit Britain there is an even greater need for innovation and digital to enable Britain to be a global player and to ensure we build back better. UK Government itself has a “digital by default” strategy which encourages the uptake of digital solutions. Furthermore, its digital identity strategy is designed to help citizens consume services in an easier, more modern way, and this includes getting a job. The return to physical document checks runs contrary to all of this.''

Can we learn from other countries?

Rules and legislation around Right to Work checks differ from country to country. But if we look at our neighbours: How does the government handle Right to Work checks in other markets? Can we learn from other countries on this matter?

Björn Rijckenberg: The online Right to Work checks are legal in many European countries such as the Netherlands. Recruitment and temping companies in the Netherlands can onboard people and perform a Right to Work check online which complies to all laws and legislation. On the first day of work, employee’s do have to bring a physical document to identify themselves. But there are a many of advantages in performing the initial verification online. Companies can reduce costs through a reduction in their back-office resources and can capture fraud issues earlier in the process. This results in a safer, faster and more user-friendly candidate onboarding process. The combination of verification technology and document experts is more reliable than a physical check performed by someone who is not trained to a high level in recognising fraudulent documents.